Afronauts bassist Eric Keeney is a self-proclaimed music geek. For much of his life as a musician, he played in bands that cater to music geeks — complex and technically impressive, but not necessarily conducive to an all-night dance party. That all changed, however, when a chance encounter at a college radio station opened him up to a music form that is pretty much one big dance party: afrobeat.
“It’s weird, because I came from playing in metal and rock bands in Portland,” Keeney says. “I didn’t get turned on to afrobeat until I went back to school in 2004. I was working on this documentary about a college radio station where I was introduced to Fela Kuti’s Expensive Shit, which really turned me on to the genre.”
Going from metal to afrobeat may seem like a huge change, but Keeney had always wanted to play something a little more loose and accessible. When he moved to Boulder, Keeney found the perfect combination of a community that would be receptive to the genre and musicians who were excited to team up with the former metal bassist. In March of 2011, Keeney placed an ad on Craigslist and the Afronauts were born.
“I’ve always played music for musicians,” Keeney says, “but I also always wanted to play music that got people dancing and got the crowd more involved. When I got to Boulder, it just seemed like this community and the folk who lived here would be really supportive of this type of music.”
Of course, traces of Keeney’s music-geek past can still be found in the Afronauts. When they play a venue like Shug’s, with the crowd all decked out and ready to get down, the nine-piece group can fully embrace their fun and funky side. But you’re just as likely to see the group at The Laughing Goat, where their sets venture into quieter, weirder territory that incorporates more aspects from Keeney’s past.
“We have enough tunes now that our catalog is diverse enough to shape our set depending on where we play. We’ll definitely play traditional afrobeat and play a lot of Fela Kuti at some venues, but we also have some strange songs that are kind of contemporary jazz or post-rock songs that we will save for venues like the Goat, where people are less likely to dance and be more of an audience.”
Keeney says the most rewarding thing about the group has been watching the evolution of the musicians playing together. What started as nine strangers who met on Craigslist has developed into one of Boulder’s hottest live acts. The group has started writing more original material, and they continue to incorporate new tracks into their set list.
For now, the Afronauts are keeping their band as loose and fun as the music they play. Nearly everyone in the group plays with other bands around town, so the group’s gigging and practice schedule is kept pretty light. Keeney says they only plan to play a few times a month and they only practice about once a week. This attitude has helped the group overcome some of the standard trials and tribulations that often plague bands in their infancy. Playing to a half-empty venue is a lot more fun when you enjoy playing with the musicians you share the stage with, and those small stages seem less crowded when everyone is having a good time.
“The music is fun to play,” Keeney says, “and when you hit your stride it can be challenging to play. … I’m just amazed at the sounds that come out of the other members of the group at rehearsal. I’m surrounded by some pretty top-notch players, and when they gel in their comfort zone together, those skills come out naturally.”
It’s nice to think of Keeney laying down a bass line in the Afronauts practice space, nodding his head in wonder at the sounds coming out of his band. A year ago, he was a music geek with a love for a niche genre. The fact that he was able to find eight other musicians who share his love for the genre — or at least shared an openness to play the genre — is impressive. What’s more
impressive is that the Afronauts are only just now starting to come into their own. The coming year should find the group continuing to grow — still getting people out of their seats and onto the dance floor while finding their own signature sound.
“We’re evolving,” Keeney says.
“We’re writing our own material more, and I think that’s really the next step for the band. But everyone is in the same mindset, and the music is just really fun to play.”
On the Bill
The Afronauts play The Laughing Goat on Saturday, Jan. 7. Show starts at 8 p.m. Show is free. 1709 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-440-4628.